'The surf is up and so is the Paskowitz family," says the narrator of a '70s TV news report at the beginning of Surfwise. And indeed they are: nine kids - eight boys and a girl - scampering down to water's edge with surfboards in tow, led there by Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, a Stanford-trained physician who loaded his wife, Juliette, and their brood into a 24-foot camper and just followed the waves.
For years. And more years.
Doug Pray's portrait of a defiantly noncomformist father and his jostling, competitive clan is wholly engaging stuff. Not just the story of one man's obsessive quest to find harmony on a plank of wood, Surfwise offers a cautionary tale about parenting, homeschooling (camper-schooling, actually), sibling rivalries and family sacrifice.
A devout Jew who introduced the sport of surfing to Israel, Doc Paskowitz, 82 at the time Pray made his movie, still surfs, and still reprimands his now-adult children for the choices they did and didn't make in life. He was, and is, intensely opinionated, narcissistic, charismatic, tyrannical. Juliette, a Mexican beauty, talks about essentially giving up her freedom to become pregnant and breast-feed a 10-year-long succession of kids.
Imbued with a spirit of feisty noncomformism, the Paskowitz offspring nonetheless had to wrestle with issues of resentment, regret and abuse. Their nomadic youth - no classrooms, no proms, no backyard to play in - was at once loving and intimate, claustrophobic and haywire. Doc and Juliette led a vigorous sex life and made no effort to conceal it from the sons (and daughter) sleeping only a few feet away.
Grown up now, some with kids of their own, Doc's children are still coming to terms with their unique histories, the rolling surf, and the roiling temper of a dictatorial dad.
Pray has a great story here, but it's much more than just The Brady Bunch's Endless Summer. Doc Paskowitz, for all his eccentricities, left a legacy far more complicated than just a simple love of riding a board on a wave.
Surfwise ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Doug Pray. With Dorian Paskowitz, Juliette Paskowitz, Adam Paskowitz, Israel Paskowitz, Jonathan Paskowitz, Navah Paskowitz and more. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.